Betty C, part II

images-3 So, Betty was an imaginary friend.  Or imaginary neighbor or aunt for a child like me.  I’ll admit, I’ve never really understood the psychological interpretation of the need for an imaginary friend… something about not feeling alone?  However the marketing necessity of BC’s creation by one of the food industry giants is crystal clear. They needed Betty to sell their products and their ideas.

Why did the women of the 1950’s respond so strongly to Betty?  Were they feeling lonely?  To some extent, I think that was true.  The young couples who married right after WWII (and who produced the ‘baby boom’) moved to the suburbs by the millions. [Pause to NOTE, as Laura Shapiro does, my thoughts are relevant primarily to the white, upwardly mobile working class/middle class to which my family belonged.]

imagesMoving to the suburbs was part of the American Dream, but doing so often contributed to the break down of the centuries-old chain of cooking knowledge.  For many women, their mothers, grandmothers and aunts no longer shared the kitchen, as had been the norm.  In a few fortunate families, this dissolution did not occur.  I grew up with friends who learned to cook from their moms and g’moms.  Some of those moms also taught me a thing or two…and I thank them to this day.

A few years ago, I began interviewing people about their Food Life Stories.  In fact, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, that was an early phase of the circle that brings me to this post today.  I am reminded of one woman who shared this bit of advice from her 1950’s mom:  “Never get good at something you don’t like to do, like cooking, because then you will be stuck doing it.”  This woman hated to cook.  Her daughter, now a mother of three, struggles to find any pleasure in cooking for her family.

My mother’s mother virtually never cooked; which she could get away with because her husband traveled for work and my mother was an only child.  In fact, I am quite certain that my Nanna was an early and enthusiastic embracer of prepared foods, when she didn’t eat out or hire someone to cook for her.  images-1

So, did the housewives who turned to Betty Crocker have nowhere else to turn?  Not really.  Betty and her ilk were easy to access, but there were other sources…

I’m talking about Home Economics.  I’ve been doing a little research about the evolution of Home Ec in public schools.  If you took Home Ec classes in junior high or high school, I would love to hear from you about your experiences and memories.  Thanks.

Ms. Betty

Let’s talk about Betty Crocker, shall we?
Was she a real person?  That would be “No.”  BCspoon

She was a delightful persona, invented by Gold Medal Flour/General Foods to speak for the food industry in the voice of a wise & helpful next door neighbor.

She was a, perhaps the, leading character in the food industry campaign to convince women that they really wanted to use the new prepared food products that were pouring out of factories and into markets in the years following WWII.  Much of her story can be found in Laura Shapiro’s gem, Something From the Oven, published in 2004.

Independent research done at the time revealed, again and again, that women did not hate cooking and were not begging for these ‘ready-mix’ products.  (Shapiro, pp. 44-48)  But in the 1950‘s, the newspapers, women’s magazines and radio shows like Betty’s all proclaimed that women no longer wanted to cook, did not have the time to cook and the industry was there to save the day.

Some factory prepared food products were already a common sight in American kitchens.  “Canned meats, soups, fruits and vegetables, along with ketchup, pancake mix… were among the earliest products [late 19th and early 20th century] to become familiar and then indispensable.”, says Shapiro in her introduction.

The door was open and the American palate was already becoming accustomed to the taste of processed food;  “… a long tradition of using… packaged foods had encouraged Americans to develop a… sense of taste… that tended to perceive imitation [flavoring] as plenty good enough.”  (Shapiro, pp. 56)  The opening wedge of using artificial flavors to mask the offensive tastes of factory cooking.  Salt, sugar and fat to follow.

The industry was primed and began to crank out dozens of new packaged foods (some of which failed dismally.)  In this flurry of innovation, Betty was a reassuring presence, an authority that home cooks could turn to with their questions.  Betty Crocker’s New Good and Easy Cookbook was given to me in the late 1950’s.  Still on my shelf, it is splattered and stained, with notes detailing when I made a dish, changes I made and the response of diners.

Looking at the cookbook today, I am surprised (but shouldn’t be) by the appearance of a prepared food item in virtually every recipe.  Sometimes several canned products and Bisquick combine to make an entree.  Mini-marshmallows and canned pineapple show up a lot.  Fact is, it all scares me a little.  But.

But, what I can’t explain is the sensation of support and encouragement that still arises from these pages.  I am transported back to the seven-year-old child who could, and did, learn to cook with the help of Betty Crocker.  She was not real, she was packaged, just like the food she was created to sell, but…      BCface